General Motors Corporation (NYSE: GM) and Exxon Mobil Corporation announced today that they have developed a highly-efficient gasoline fuel processor for fuel cell vehicles. The companies said that the processor is a major breakthrough that will lead to greatly reduced emissions and improved fuel economy. GM plans a vehicle demonstration using this technology within 18 months.

The processor uses gasoline as a fuel to create a high-quality stream of hydrogen that powers a fuel cell. For consumers this means they will be able to fuel these new vehicles the same way they fuel their present cars. GM researchers and engineers believe that the gasoline processor is a key to fuel cell production this decade.

"The gasoline processor could be the bridge between today's conventional vehicles and tomorrow's hydrogen fuel cell vehicles," said Harry J. Pearce, GM Vice Chairman. "While we view hydrogen as the future fuel for automotive applications, we have significant commercial challenges, such as designing and building a large number of hydrogen refueling stations, developing feasible on-board fuel tanks and agreeing to industry-wide specifications."

GM and ExxonMobil said that the results of a three-year collaborative research program have allowed GM and ExxonMobil engineers to design, develop, build and run a gasoline processor that exceeds 80 percent efficiency. By the end of this year, GM will demonstrate in a laboratory an integrated system with an advanced version of this processor and a GM fuel cell stack producing 25 kW.

GM selected the 25 kW system as a learning platform. The 25 kW system begins to approach the overall efficiency requirements for automotive use and will foster development of future automotive and stationary fuel cell systems. Peak fuel cell system efficiency is expected to achieve nearly 40 percent in this early generation design. As a reference, this results in nearly twice the efficiency of today's vehicles over a typical drive cycle. The system will integrate GM's proprietary designs in gasoline processing and fuel cell stacks.

"We've addressed an important technical challenge and accomplished what others thought wasn't possible," said Lawrence D. Burns, GM Vice President for Research & Development and Planning, in announcing the development here today. "Consumers want practical solutions. Fuel cells based on gasoline make use of an existing infrastructure, and mean that cleaner, more efficient vehicles can be in consumers' hands within the next 10 years. This breakthrough demonstrates the power of collaboration between the petroleum and auto industries."

"Together with GM, we have been able to distinguish ourselves as leaders in the fields of hydrocarbon processors and fuel cells. This is a direct result of combining the unique capabilities of the petroleum and automotive industries. Continuing to improve the performance of hydrocarbons in vehicle transportation systems is one of ExxonMobil's major business strategies and priorities," said Bill Innes, President of ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Company.

ExxonMobil and GM signed an agreement in 1998 to conduct research on hardware and fuel options for next generation vehicles. The collaboration has resulted in several important breakthroughs to speed the development of a gasoline processor to provide hydrogen for a fuel cell powered vehicle.

Other breakthroughs resulting from the ExxonMobil and GM research alliance include:

  • A unique transient reactor unit which allows testing of gasoline processors from zero to full power and test the quality of the generated hydrogen fuel.

  • An advanced set of system dynamic models (computer code) to accelerate the development and testing of fuel processor system prototypes.

  • Advanced models for coupling chemical kinetics and fluid dynamics. These models allow for detailed studies of processor/fuel interactions.

  • Use of state-of-the-art computational fluid dynamics for the development and design of primary reactor inlet systems. This approach has resulted in significant improvements in reactor performance compared with early prototypes.

  • ExxonMobil and GM are combining knowledge of fuels and gasoline processor system design to accelerate prototype development, identify critical fuel properties and aid in the selection of optimized combinations of fuel and processor which can increase efficiency and reduce size and complexity.

  • Burns said that the gasoline processor running today is GM's second- generation design, with a third planned shortly. With each generation, GM has reduced system size and weight while improving efficiency. The next generation fuel cell system fueled by gasoline will be half the size and half the weight of the current generation.